The members and supporters of the Ancestral Burial Ground Committee protest outside St George’s Cathedral yesterday against the Anglican Church’s alleged desecration of the graves at the church’s Black River Cemetery on Klipfontein Road in Athlone. Khoisan chief Francisco MacKaizer burns incense for the spirits that have been disturbed by the exhumation. Picture: Jason Boud/ANA
A group calling themselves the Ancestral Burial Ground Committee protested in front of St George’s Cathedral yesterday over the exhumation of about 2 500 bodies buried at a 150-year-old cemetery in Athlone.

Protesters said they were there to represent their ancestors, whose graves were being desecrated at the Anglican Church’s Black River Cemetery in Klipfontein Road.

Earlier this year, the Anglican Diocese of Cape Town held a deconsecration ceremony to exhume the remains to make way for potential future development on the site.

A Burial Ground committee member Basil Coetzee said they were a coalition of various groups and indigenous Khoi organisations, and that the aim of their protest was to raise awareness of their fight.

“We believe it was appropriate to bring to the attention of the church’s congregants and the public, what the (Anglican) church is doing for economic gains. 

"The procedures followed were flawed. The reverend in charge has been disrespectful and made derogatory remarks towards us,” Coetzee said.

The exhumation has been halted for now and they had called for engagement with the dioceses on the matter, he added.

The committee was in the process of contacting all the relevant role players - including the government - to preserve the cemetery, which they consider a heritage site.

Archaeologist Mary Patrick, of the Cape Archaeological Survey, was approached by the church to conduct the exhumation project.

She declined to comment on the project.

Campaigns and petitions have been launched to stop the project with protests held at the cemetery last week, disrupting the exhumations.

In April, the Anglican Diocese of Cape Town released a statement inviting the public whose ancestors were buried in the cemetery to participate in the reburial of their remains.

The church estimates that of the 2500 graves to be exhumed at least half of the remains are of children. 

It also previously said the bodies exhumed would be reburied in a columbarium – a specially built, sealed church-like building alongside St Mark’s Church in Athlone.

But the Bishop of Table Bay, Garth Counsell, said: “Apart from a few isolated headstones in deep grass, and scatterings of eroded perlemoen, there is no indication that (the ground at the Black River church) is a cemetery.

"We have not had the money to maintain it and we have received constant complaints from homeowners in the now built-up area of Garlandale about the dumping of waste, vagrants and crime.

“Following the procedures laid down in the law, we advertised the public meetings. Those who attended voted on the way forward and we have official approval to begin the exhumations,” the bishop said.

The diocese has not yet made a decision on what to do with the land when the exhumations are completed, but hopes it will be redeveloped and that the proceeds will cover the cost of the exhumations.

During the consultation process, the Athlone community strongly opposed a proposal for a service station on the land, voting in favour of housing of at least the same standard as the nearby housing in Athlone.

The Cape Times was unable to reach the archdiocese for comment at the time of publication.

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